Frits Lugt (1884-1970)

The Fondation Custodia was created in 1947 by the Dutch collector and connoisseur Frits Lugt and his wife Jacoba (To) Lugt-Klever (1888-1969).

Frits Lugt

Frederik Johannes Lugt (1884-1970), a native of Amsterdam, had collecting and cataloguing in his blood. While still only eight years old Frits, as he was known, drew up a proper catalogue of his collection – Museum Lugtius, geopend als de directeur thuis is (open when the director is at home) – which consisted among other things of unusual shells. From the age of ten he passed as much time as possible in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, minutely examining the works and drawing copies of them. With some difficulty he also managed to gain access to the Print Room, where he was regarded with suspicion by the keepers. Young Frits became a devotee and spent all his free time in the reading room. To his astonishment he found that there was no catalogue of the Dutch drawings. Undaunted, he set to work himself, carefully describing each sheet, determining the provenance, copying the signature and writing a brief biography of the artist. By the end of 1899 he had got as far as Jordaens and catalogued 955 drawings.

Rembrandt biography by the young Frits Lugt, 1899

Rembrandt, who was the subject of a major exhibition in 1898, held a special fascination for Lugt. A year later he surprised his family and friends with a comprehensive biography of the artist incorporating the results of the latest research. A talented draughtsman, he illustrated it with his own drawings. The Rembrandt biography was to change his young life completely.

Through a relative Lugt was offered a post with the distinguished Amsterdam auction house of Frederik Muller. This put an end to his education at secondary school. At Muller’s he spent much of his time compiling sale catalogues, which helped to train his gifted eye and further enriched his extraordinary visual memory. Looking was what mattered above all; looking, comparing and actually working with art. There was no better training. Being self-taught, Lugt believed that love of the work of art should come first, not its historical significance. In his view taste and feeling were in the end more important for true connoisseurship than the power of reason or a degree in art history. Lugt became an internationally acknowledged expert on Dutch and Flemish art with a ‘nose for quality’. The precarious financial position of the auction house after the outbreak of the First World War meant that Lugt had to leave in 1915. While employed by Frederik Muller he had not been allowed to buy works on his own account; now he was free to build up a collection.

The married couple Frits Lugt and Jacoba Klever, December 1910

His marriage to Jacoba Klever (1888-1969) in 1910 had brought him a measure of financial independence. They formed a devoted couple for almost sixty years and had a love of art in common. When their busy family life allowed – they had five children – Mrs Lugt accompanied her husband on his journeys abroad and visits to auctions and museums. In building up their collection, they first concentrated on drawings, prints and old books because these were still reasonably priced. Paintings, particularly those of the great masters, were too expensive. At this time Lugt was making his living by advising other collectors and by dealing, although he could always turn to his father-­in-law. Putting together a good collection was not just a question of money; it also had a great deal to do with connections and expert knowledge of the art market, both of which Lugt had. This enabled him to secure pieces which in normal circumstances would not have been available to collectors.

For many collectors, dealers and art historians the name Lugt is associated with two unrivalled works of reference which are still indispensable. Les Marques de collections de dessins et d’estampes appeared in 1921, followed by a supplement in 1956. This survey of collector’s marks contains a mass of information about collectors and the vicissitudes of their collections, now all in minute detail available online. A second laborious task that Lugt undertook, with the aid of assistants, resulted in the four volumes of the Répertoire des catalogues de ventes publiques, which was based on his own extensive collection of sale catalogues. The first volume, which describes and analyses sale catalogues from 1600 to 1825, was published in 1938.

Les Marques de collections de dessins & d’estampes, 1921, and its Supplément, 1956

Lugt’s international standing as an expert is evident from the fact that he was asked to catalogue the collections of Dutch and Flemish drawings in the Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

During their stay in the United States, where the Lugts spent the war years, they had been impressed by the initiatives taken by private collectors and other art lovers. This is what lay behind their decision in 1947 to make over their collection to a foundation, the Fondation Custodia. When plans to set up a center for art and scholarship in the Netherlands came to nothing, the Lugts decided to move to France, their second homeland. A house was bought in Paris in which the Frits Lugt Collection was accommodated. The Fondation Custodia continues the lifework of Mr and Mrs Lugt with the collection as its driving force.

Frits Lugt’s biography was published in 2010: Frits Lugt 1884 – 1970. Living for Art, written by J.F. (Freek) Heijbroek, former curator at the Rijksmuseum.
Paris, Fondation Custodia and Bussum, Uitgeverij THOTH
ISBN 978 90 6868 592 3 (English edition)
ISBN 978 90 6868 551 0 (Dutch edition)


Video made to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Frits Lugt (1884-1970), creator with his wife Jacoba Lugt-Klever (1888-1969) of the Fondation Custodia.